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Senate Investigations

Photo of Howard Baker and Sam Ervin
Howard Baker and Sam Ervin investigate Watergate

Historically, successful Senate investigations (as well as those conducted by the House of Representatives) have required a combination of persistence, diligence, expert staff, sharp questioning, good publicity, and some luck. Successful investigators have conducted a great deal of background research in order to collect evidence, and have been shrewd in evaluating evidence and in questioning witnesses. They needed to achieve a level of bipartisanship to maintain credibility. They also needed enough showmanship to attract the press and hold public attention. Ultimately, it was not sufficient for them simply to uncover serious problems; they needed to do something about them, whether by punishing transgressors or by enacting laws to prevent a recurrence.

Congress has conducted investigations of malfeasance in the executive branch–and elsewhere in American society–since 1792. That year, the House of Representatives established a select committee to investigate the defeat of American troops during a battle with Native Americans in the Northwest Territory. In 1798 Congress authorized taking testimony under oath and established punishments for perjury. In 1827, the House empowered its Committee on Manufactures "to send for persons and papers" relating to tariff legislation, and since then both houses have considered it their right to summon anyone, whether inside or outside the government to testify. In 1857, Congress provided that reluctant witnesses could be held in contempt and tried by federal courts.

During the Civil War, a Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War held hearings to examine battle plans and question the competence of Union generals and administration policy. After the war, Congress investigated the Credit Mobilier scandal in which many prominent senators and representatives had accepted free stock from a railroad that was drawing federal subsidies. In 1923, the Senate looked into Teapot Dome, a naval oil reserve in Wyoming, and found that Interior Secretary Albert B. Fall had been bribed to turn over federal oil lands to private interests. Two major Supreme Court cases resulted from the Teapot Dome case. In 1927, the Court ruled in McGrain v. Daugherty that even private citizens had to respond to committee subpoenas to testify. In the 1929 case of Sinclair v. United States, the Supreme Court extended the boundaries of investigative power, recognizing that Congress has a right to investigate anything related to legislation or to oversight of the executive branch.

As Teapot Dome symbolized the boom times, the Pecora Wall Street investigation of 1932-1934 reflected the stock market crash that ended the Roaring Twenties. During the Great Depression, the Senate Banking Committee's chief counsel, Ferdinand Pecora, called the nation's most prominent bankers and brokers to testify, and exposed widespread financial misconduct. The Wall Street investigation resulted in landmark legislation that tightened federal regulation of the banks and stock exchanges.

At the start of the Second World War, Missouri Senator Harry Truman chaired an investigation of U.S. war production. The Truman Committee scrutinized corporations supplying goods to the U.S. military, searched for war profiteering and shoddy materials, and examined the effectiveness of wartime administrators. Its achievements propelled Truman into the vice-presidency in 1944. Similarly, the House Un-American Activities Committee investigation of former State Department official Alger Hiss as a suspected Soviet spy launched the national career of California Representative Richard Nixon. In 1950, Tennessee Democratic Senator Estes Kefauver captured national attention while chairman of a Senate investigation into organized crime. The crime hearings were the first Congressional investigation to be televised and made Kefauver a serious contender for the presidency.

Another Senate investigator who captured public attention was Joseph R. McCarthy, the chairman of the Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations. McCarthy's bullying tactics destroyed many careers without uncovering much evidence of Communist infiltration in the government. When he took on the U.S. Army, the televised Army-McCarthy hearings demonstrated his unsavory tactics and led to his censure in December 1954. McCarthy's behavior caused the Senate to revise its rules for investigations. Also, in three major rulings in 1957, the Supreme Court reaffirmed the basic constitutional rights of all witnesses before congressional investigations.

During the 1950s the Senate held televised Senate investigations into labor racketeering; and in the 1960s the Foreign Relations Committee confronted the Vietnam War through a series of "educational" hearings. Yet the scars left by the anti-Communist hearings of the 1950s persisted until the Senate Select Committee on Presidential Campaign Activities began its investigation of the Watergate scandal in 1973. North Carolina Senator Sam Ervin grilled members of Richard Nixon's administration on their role in various political "dirty tricks." The Watergate Committee discovered that the president had secretly recorded his conversations, and that evidence eventually forced Nixon to resign from office. Twenty-one individuals, including top White House aides, were convicted of Watergate related crimes.

The Watergate Committee revitalized the historical image of congressional investigations and set the standard for others to emulate, but also added to their burden of proof. Both the Iran-Contra hearings in 1987 and the Whitewater investigation in 1995-1996 were expected to be re-plays of Watergate. In neither case did the investigations lead to any public consensus on official wrongdoing. Yet the need for congressional investigation remains a critical ingredient for restraining government and maintaining an informed public opinion.


Related Links

List of Major Senate Investigations (pdf)

CRS Report: Congressional Investigations--Subpoenas and Contempt Power (pdf)

CRS Report: Congressional Oversight (pdf)

Transcripts of Joseph McCarthy Executive Session Hearings Released


Further Readings on Senate Investigations

Alan Barth, Government by Investigation (New York: Viking, 1955).

Raoul Berger, Executive Privilege (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1974).

William S. Cohen and George J. Mitchell, Men of Zeal: A Candid Inside Story of the Iran-Contra Hearings (New York: Penguin, 1989).

Sam Dash, Chief Counsel: Inside the Ervin Committee--the Untold Story (New York: Random House, 1976).

Fred Emery, Watergate: The Corruption of American Politics and the Fall of Richard Nixon (New York: Random House, 1994).

Robert Griffith, The Politics of Fear: Joseph R. McCarthy and the Senate (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1970).

James Hamilton, The Power to Probe: A Study of Congressional Investigations (New York: Random House, 1976).

Loch K. Johnson, A Season of Inquiry: The Senate Intelligence Investigation (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1985.

William H. Moore, The Kefauver Committee and the Politics of Crime, 1950-1952 (Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1974).

Burl Noggle, Teapot Dome: Oil and Politics in the 1920's (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1962).

Keith W. Olson, Watergate: The Presidential Scandal That Rocked America (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2003).

Ferdinand Pecora, Wall Street Under Oath, The Story of Our Modern Money Changers (New York: A.M. Kelley, 1968 [1939].

Donald H. Riddle, The Truman Committee: A Study in Congressional Responsibility (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1964).

Arthur M. Schlesinger and Roger Bruns, eds., Congress Investigates: A Documented History, 1792-1974 (New York: R.R. Bowker, 1975), 5 volumes.

Telford Taylor, Grand Inquest (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1955).

Fred Thompson, At That Point in Time: The Inside Story of the Senate Watergate Committee (New York: Quadrangle, 1975).

John E. Wiltz, In Search of Peace: The Senate Munitions Inquiry, 1934-1936 (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1963).


Historical information provided by the Senate Historical Office.

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